At the heart of symbolism

Colours, compass points and elements

(Detailed page)



As mentioned in the abstract page of this article, four basic diagrams will be useful to determine the colours of the cardinal points in several traditional forms. They will bring together the six most widespread colours in ancient societies (white, red, yellow, green, blue and black) with the six directions of space:

Basic diagrams to determine the colour of the compass points

Christian and Hinduism colours

Greece and India
Greek and Indian colours

Ancient China
Chinese colours

Mayas of Guatemala
Mayan colours

In this article, we will study the colours of the compass points and, in some traditional forms, connect them to elements. Before going further, let us remind that the elements of the various traditional forms have nothing in common with the chemical elements at the root of the composition of bodies in general. They are elementary principles of the manifestation of physical bodies only. Moreover, the various bodies, unlike the chemical compounds, contain all the elements in various proportions.

Colours of the stained-glass windows in cathedrals

As in a fair number of traditional forms, Christianity had chosen to turn towards the rising sun, or east, to build up its churches (for more details, see the Romanesque basilica). The entry of the sanctuary, located in the west, led the faithful progressing from darkness (west) towards light (east) while following the sun's path. For the builders of the Gothic cathedrals in particular, the construction of the building had to contribute foremost to raise the soul of the faithful towards the celestial heights.

The object of the stained glass windows consisted in letting the celestial light enter the cathedrals in a softened way in accordance with the capacities of reception of the terrestrial being. Moreover, their orientation according to the cardinal points had to reflect the daily or seasonal path of the sun. For this purpose, they lightened the inside of the building with a dominant colour in harmony with their orientation:

  • Blue for north, night and winter; in the absence of the sun rays, the stained-glass window received the light of Heaven;
  • Green for east, rising light and spring revival;
  • Yellow for south, midday and summer;
  • Red for west, twilight and autumn.

These four cardinal directions were completed with two vertical directions symbolized by white for zenith and black for nadir.

Christian and Hinduism colours

When the faithful enters the cathedral, he is facing east and will go through the building while following the diurnal cycle of the sun; he will finish a cycle at the west before undertaking another one. During each cycle, he will travel through the colours of the rainbow spectrum, the true bridge between Earth and Heaven, from “bottom” to “top”. the raising will continue until the faithful rejoins the centre, the intersection point of the six directions of space, and rises towards light up to the zenith.

Curiously, the same colours characterized the “House of Regeneration” in ancient Egypt. It was the place where funerary rites were practiced to accompany the deceased during his voyage towards the beyond.

The Egyptian, Biblical, Greek and Hermetic doctrines

All these traditional forms are gathered around a common characteristic: they are orientated towards the rising sun, i.e. east.

The elements or principles common to these traditions are fire, air, water and earth according to the hierarchical order prescribed par Plato and his disciple Aristotle. However, the elements arrangement according to the compass points has to be in harmony with the colour arrangement. Now, the four colours associated with the compass points are two by two complementary (red and green, yellow and blue). And the four elements are also two by two complementary (fire and water, air and earth). The superposition of the complementary couples regarding colours and elements, as in the following diagrams, will ensure the required coherence:

Greek and Indian coloursCompass point and element colours in Greece

In this last diagram fire is red, air yellow, water green and earth blue. Why could south not be yellow and east red ? And why could air not be blue and earth yellow ? For a very simple reason which has more to do with a symbolic than a descriptive approach. Indeed, the elements can not be exchanged according to one's wishes; they proceed from each other in the strict order defined by Plato: fire is to air as air is to water and water to earth. And the manifestation of this hierarchical order perfectly agrees with the downward sequence of the four colours (red, yellow, green and blue) of the rainbow.

According to Aristotle and especially the hermetic tradition, the manifestation of elements is carried out from their unified state, symbolized by a fifth element, ether. Ether is also sometimes called “quintessence”, which is wrong considering its substantial and non essential character. As ether contains the other elements in an undifferentiated state, it is natural to place it at the intersection point of the axes, the centre and give it a neutral grey colour.

The Hindu doctrine

Like the Greek traditional form, the Hindu tradition is oriented towards east. The elements of the doctrine symbolize the elementary principles at the origin of the manifestation of (physical) bodies. Named bhûtas (substantial physical beings), they are five in number and presented in the following order: ākāśa (ether), vāyu (air), tejas (fire), ap (water) and prithvī (earth). This order differs from the Greek one by the inversion of fire and air. The elements are ordered according to increasing density in agreement with their material manifestation and decreasing density at the time of their return towards the unified state, symbolized by the undifferentiated element ether.

In accordance with the diagrams examined until now, the manifestation of the elements is simultaneously carried out in two directions, horizontal and vertical. The differentiation of the elements originates from ether where the trends of horizontal and vertical expansion balance perfectly. When their manifestation occurs, this balance is broken in favour of the trend closest to the initial balance. It can only be the horizontal expansion which equally spreads on both sides of the centre. This trend is naturally associated with air. After the manifestation of air, comes the manifestation of the elements where the vertical trend prevails. Firstly fire where the upward expansion dominates, followed by water and earth marked by the opposite trend. All that shows that we are in presence of a production order.

Generally speaking, the elements are manifested according to the proportion of the two types of expansion, horizontal or fluidity and vertical or density. As a principle, ether dominates all the other elements. Therefore, it is located “above” the others due to its obvious faculty of upward expansion.

Cardinal colours in HindouismCompass point and element colours in Hindouism

In the Hindu tradition, the expansion is related to the integral development of the being and results from the interaction of two principles: Purusha, the male, active, essential and immutable principle which actualizes the possibilities of Prakriti, the female, passive, substantial and undifferentiated principle.

Prakriti contains, at a unified state, three qualities that constitute beings and things, the three gunas. At the time of the interaction between the essence Purusha and the substance Prakriti, the initial balance between the three gunas is broken; they appear in beings and things as a mix of:

  • The three gunasSattwa that expresses the accordance of the being with the essence and corresponds to the vertical ascent related to the white colour;
  • Rajas that represents the development of the being according to a given state, in relation to the horizontal expansion and red colour;
  • Tamas that depicts the identification of the being with darkness and ignorance characterized by the vertical descent and black colour.

Let us specify that the three gunas are not being's states, but conditions of the integral manifestation of beings apart from any state of existence.

After having approached the hierarchical order with the Greek doctrine and the production order with the Hindu doctrine, we will examine the Chinese doctrine coming under different orders.

The Chinese doctrine

Yang and yin

Ancient China has mostly adopted an orientation turned towards south, yang, and marginally towards north, yin (see the Chinese tradition for more details). Yang and yin constitute the two great principles of this tradition:

  • Yang characterizes the predominance of all that is active, positive, male, luminous, clear…; it is represented by the white colour;
  • Yin characterizes the prevalence of all that is passive, negative, female, obscure, gloomy…; it is illustrated by the black colour.

The vertical yin-Yang symbolLet us stress that the comprehension of the Chinese thought goes through the absence of judgement regarding these categories, for all things are made of yin and yang in various proportions. Yang and yin can never be separated just as south (or east) can not be cut off from north (or west). They constitute a couple of complements as in the famous yin-yang symbol. In this denomination, yin comes before yang in accordance with a cosmological vision turned towards yang, south.

Complementary couples of colours such as (white, black), (red, green) or (yellow, purple) can be related to the couple (yang, yin). That does not mean that white, red or yellow, taken separately, are yang for all that. These colours are only yang relatively to their complementary colour yin.

Colours of the compass points and elements

In the first diagram below, white is associated with zenith and black with nadir. Moreover, the south-north and east-west axes are respectively connected to the couples of colours (red, green) and (blue, yellow).

Chinese colours

The previous diagram can be related to the “elements” of the Chinese tradition. They are five, in number and called water, wood, fire, earth and metal in their (cyclic) production order. As in other traditions, these elements symbolize elementary principles at the origin of the manifestation of the physical world; they have, more appropriately, been called (operational) agents by Marcel Granet.

The peculiar nature of these elements led to complete the cyclic production (or generation) order by a second cyclic destruction order: wood, earth, water, fire and metal.

To go from the previous diagram to the element diagram, it is advisable to proceed through several operations:

  • A projection of white on the horizontal plane to occupy the place of yellow; yellow migrates towards the centre, moving away from yin and closer to yang before carrying out a perfect balance between both aspects;
  • The projection of black on the same horizontal plane to occupy the place of green; green moves in turn towards blue to give, through mixture, a blue-green or turquoise colour.

Colors cardinal points in ChinaCompass point and element colours in China

Having reached this point, a question arises. How can the element earth take part in various cyclic orders in the same way as the other elements and simultaneously occupy the centre ? If we refer to what we have seen, earth can not contain the other elements in an undifferentiated state. In fact, this arrangement results from the interaction of yang and yin in relation to the cardinal points. Earth characterizes the state of balance between yang and yin, between fire and wood yang and metal and water yin. This arrangement could reflect the following “hierarchical” order: fire, wood, earth, metal and water.

A second question follows. Why earth rather than another element ? Within the fundamental polarity between Heaven and Earth, Earth is associated with the physical manifestation and it is natural to consider that the element earth may play a privileged role among the other elements during this process.

Lastly, why is the element earth associated with yellow ? Just as earth occupies the centre of the diagram of the cardinal points, yellow corresponds to a median colour of the rainbow. In China, the rainbow covers four colours: red, yellow, green, blue.

The Ming Tang coloursThe centre symbolizes the “Invariable Middle”, the place where the union between the celestial and terrestrial influences takes place. It characterizes the place where the mediator between Heaven and Earth, the Emperor, is standing in the the Ming Tang (“the temple of Light”), before promulgating the orders destined to regulate the Empire. As the temple is orientated according to the cardinal points and contains nine rooms, it is reasonable to associate yellow with the central room, the colours of the cardinal points with the rooms orientated towards these points and the intermediate colours with the other rooms as in the above image.

The relationships between colours, compass points and elements are summarized in the following table:

Orientation Nature Element Colour
south yang fire
east yang wood
centre yang-yin earth
west yin metal
north yin water

The Maya's doctrine

Corn constituted the basic food of the Mayas and the basic element of their worship. The word Maya as such derives from the word corn. According to “Popol Vuh”, the Book of Councel, which recalls the myth of creation of the Maya-Quiche World, the first four men and first four women were begotten by gods from corn paste.

The colours of the four compass directions are not randomly selected. Indeed, they are colours that corn grains can take on: yellow, red, white and black (purplish).

The passage of the basic diagram to the element diagram is carried out according to the following operations:

  • The projection of white on the horizontal plane to occupy the place of blue which migrates towards the centre;
  • The projection of black on the same horizontal plane to take the place of green which also migrates towards the centre;
  • The centre is occupied by the mixture of blue and green, i.e. the colour blue-green or turquoise.

Cardinal colours at the MayasCompass point and element colours among the Mayas

The colours of the compass points symbolized the life cycle: to the east, red was associated with birth; at the south, yellow represented life itself; in the west, black characterized darkness and death; to the north, white expressed regeneration. Let us notice that this cycle follows, as it should be the case, the sun's path.

In the Maya and, more generally, Amerindian tradition, turquoise was the stone of gods who were often equipped with a turquoise attribute.


In all the traditions studied previously, the four cardinal directions start from the centre which symbolizes the point of balance between brightness (south, east) and darkness (north, west) or between yang and yin. The colours of the cardinal points and associated elements differ according to the cultural backgrounds of the concerned traditions.

The elements associated with the cardinal points can:

  • either be gathered in a fifth element located at the centre and containing all of them in an undifferentiated state;
  • or find their point of balance between yang and yin in a fifth element located at the centre.

It follows that the centre constitutes:

  • either the starting point of the manifestation of the elements associated with the cardinal points and the return point of the same elements into their undifferentiated state;
  • or the point of passage or transition between the yang and yin elements within their “hierarchical” order.

The previous development shows the specificity of the Chinese tradition based, as in all things, on the yang and yin dynamics.


  • René Guénon:
  • “Studies in Hinduism”, 1968 Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2001;
  • In particular, “The Hindou theory of the five elements”.
  • “The Great Triad”, South Asia Books Publisher.
  • Notably, chapter 8 on “Celestial numbers and terrestrial numbers”, Albin Michel Publisher, 1988.
  • Marcel Granet:
  • “The Chinese Thought”, Albin Michel Publisher, 1988.
  • In particular, the chapter on “Numbers”
  • Albert-Vanel:
  • “The spirituality of colour”. Color Messenger Publisher, 2012;
  • A synthesis on the role of colour in ancient societies.